A look at the various Play School and Play Away albums and their unexpectedly funky and folky grooves...
Rick, Julie And Jonathan Sing Songs From Play School (1969)
That would be Rick Jones, Julie Stevens and Jonathan Cohen, then. Straightforward straight-ahead acoustic-guitar-and-piano nursery school singalong in intent it may well be, but as it's performed by Play School's two most psyched-out surrealist presenters and a jazz-leaning ivory-basher marooned in Children's TV Land, there's some unexpected delights to be found amongst the by-the-book strolls through the likes of There's A Hole In My Bucket and Soldier Soldier, not least folk club-esque takes on a couple of Rick's erstwhile attempts at solo singer-songwriter superstardom, namely a chilled-out bash at You Don't Have To and a duetted version of famously far-out Acid Folk jangler The Flowers Are Mine.
Play School (1970)
The first 'story' album, but with a difference, as everything is drenched in sound effects, bursts of music, and... well, sometimes it's even weirder than that. All the various presenters are on board, many of them performing self-penned efforts, and it really does get a tad mind-expanding at times. Highpoints include Brian Cant blasting into retro-sci-fi orbit with the tale of Professor McSpoon (who invented the rocket that flew to the moon), Carole Ward with the Mr Scruff-sampled tale of All The Fish In The Sea, Lionel Morton taking the slightest excuse to launch into a break-heavy prog monster (as later purloined by DJ Shadow) in Fearless Fred's Amazing Animal Band, and best of all Rick Jones' Splodges, an everyday tale of some amorphous shapes illustrated by squared-off soundwaves provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Essential, frankly.
Bang On A Drum (1972)
Never, ever let it be said that the absorption of psychedelia into the mainstream took all the fun out of everything. From its eye-assaulting Airhead-borrowed cover to the gloriously ridiculous Pickettywitch-meets-Mike-Westbrook Pop/Acid Folk/Brit-Jazz hybrid musical mismatch, this is a way better album than any quadrophonic-friendly heavy-hitter in a gatefold sleeve. Most of the presenters around this time were failed or failing singer-songwriters and were cost-effectively allowed to repurpose their little-heard back catalogue for a Humpty-skewed audience, hence this multi-handed effort being jampacked full of such belters as Early In The Morning, Sunbeams Play, The Israeli Boat Song, I Like Peace I Like Quiet, Rick Jones' famously proto-hip hop ode to losing yourself in the music (especially if it's, erm, played by a 'Teddy') Bang On A Drum, and a fantastic jazzy take on the Play Away theme. Raided for samples by The Go! Team, Eric B & Rakim, and none other than Prince Rogers Nelson. Do recommendations really come any higher than that?
Play Away (1973)
A pretty good attempt at doing a full edition in sound only, meaning that there's sketches, gags, poems and free-form parlour games in between all of the music (which, it has to be stressed, there is tons of, and played by Jonathan Cohen's Jazz Club mates to boot). Famed combination of Blaxploitation funk and Dawkins-esque rationalism Superstition is the obvious standout, though the likes of The Party Is About To Begin (which incorporates an interactive clapping game), Words Words Words, Umbababarumba and an energetic rattle through If I Had A Hammer are also ever so slightly good, and then on the non-musical side there's the word-walloping playlet Captain Kipper's Clipper...
Sing A Song Of Play School (1975)
The countercultural excesses of the early seventies are starting to wear off a bit by now, so there's a lot of straight ahead playgroup-orientated tweeness beginning to creep in here, though there's still room for the angular art-funk of Standing On One Leg, Stewart Lee-approved rocker Ground, and the railway-rhythmed Train Song, which both anticipates Station To Station and has clearly benefitted from the input of someone with more than a passing acquaintance with Kevin Ayers' Stop This Train Again Doing It. Also, the legendary proto-Acid Jazz Play School theme itself!
Hey You! (1975)
The Play Away mob make straight for the songs here, but there's surprisingly little attempt to go conventional; Shop Away sets consumerist satire to a neat bit of Fender Rhodes-driven soft-rock grooving, A Rollicking Round sounds uncannily like Jake Thackray circa Bantam Cock, Step Aside can't make up its mind whether it wants to be leftover trad-folk yodelling or proto Barbara Dickson showtune yodelling, Full Circle Medley charts the changing of the seasons like some lost extract from the The Wicker Man soundtrack (only with more references to Match Of The Day), Broadway Twilight sees a just pre-fame Julie Covington slink through a bit of showtune jazz, and thigh-length-booted first crush for an entire generation Toni Arthur sets some real life Wiccan runes to music. You didn't get that with bloody Rainbow.
The Tale Of A Donkey's Tail (1976)
Play School was hurtling towards conventionality at an alarming speed by now, and while this made for perfectly good television it did tend to leave something a bit lacking in the sound-only format. Hence this second story album seems a bit of a comedown after the highs of the 1970 offering, although even the slightly more formula-following stories presented here are at least enhanced by the vocal talents of a pre-Mr Cholmondley-Warner Jon Glover and bird-twitterer extraordinaire Percy Edwards.
Ready Steady Go (1977)
Nobody had told anyone at Play Away about this hurtling towards conventionality business, though, and this little-known third offering is almost as off the wall as its more illustrious ancestors. Jonathan Cohen and his band of Ronnie Scott's escapees once again take the musical reins, while Brian and Toni weave a vague 'night on the town' narrative in and out of the songs about Music Hall, coffee bars and, erm, gambling. And there's a board game on the back cover too!
Play On (1978)
That cover photo of The Toys ditching their Bang On A Drum Premier kit in favour of primary school-style self-made percussion instruments indicates just how much has changed since those musical glory days, and yes, it's no-frills songs to keep the youngsters distracted all the way here. That said, by now we're getting a lot of songs specifically about The Toys, notably Well Jemima Let's Go Shopping and the unwieldly one about Little Ted climbing up the 'perpendicular wall', and these - along with the similarly memorable likes of Sing A Song Of Mrs. Twisty and Paddle Your Own Canoe, not to mention the fact that Floella Benjamin was now on board - will probably provide a more pure nostalgia rush than any of Play On's stablemates.
Play School notoriously got a bit of a zany madcap makeover in the early eighties, leaving little distance between it and Play Away, and this is very much illustrated in this crossover effort blending party tunes with wry lyrics, some of them written by former Clive James co-writer Pete Atkin (though there's sadly no sign of his fellow unlikely Play Away contributor, Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator). And it actually works pretty well, especially on the frantically-paced How High Does A Fly Fly? and the Scott Walker-ish clock-based existentialism of Tick Tock Talk. Ahead lay Bingo, Cuckoo, TTV, Ben Bazell, the Screwball Scramble-esque clock, and THAT new theme tune with Flying Pickets-style 'psh-pshhhhh!' percussion.
Singing In The Band (1984)
The very tail-end of the whole enterprise, and we're into Squeeze/Other Voices territory as the few remaining faithful do their best with a set of songs that bear little or no relation to what came before whilst the threat of an updated replacement loomed close on the horizon. You'll find precious little to please break-hungry DJs, fearless Loungecore expeditionaries or insatiable adherents of the lingering remnants of psychedelia here, though it's worth searching out the single of Reggae Rita, which was backed by a surprisingly credible Dub Version credited to one 'Dr. Dread Gosling'. Also, you can see a copy of the album in Pride.
Not On Your Telly, a book collecting some of my articles on the archive TV we never get to see, is available in paperback here or as an eBook here.